Penn State scientists expanding work to help farmers learn about industrial hemp

Amy Duke
June 27, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the passage of the 2018 farm bill and new regulations that allow the crop to be grown for sale for a range of uses, hemp production in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania has taken off, with more than 300 permits approved by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture this year.

“Industrial hemp is spurring excitement among Pennsylvania growers and nongrowers alike,” said Alyssa Collins, director of Penn State’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Manheim, Lancaster County.

“Not a day goes by that we aren’t inundated with calls and emails from the public seeking information. We understand why — hemp is an interesting crop that provides opportunities for product development and economic benefit, especially for growers, landowners and rural communities, and we want to help them better understand it.”

Industrial hemp — a variety of the cannabis plant — is a renewable resource grown for raw materials that can be used to make thousands of goods. Its fiber and stalks are used in clothing, carpeting, paper, biofuel and construction products, and its seeds and flowers can be found in vegetable oils, organic body products and health foods and supplements, such as the now popular cannabidiol or CBD oils.

Though it cannot get a person “high” like another plant in the cannabis family — marijuana — hemp’s production was banned — unfairly, according to many — under the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act.

Even before hemp was green-lighted by the federal government, Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences was at the forefront of industrial hemp research in Pennsylvania — the University was one of 16 sites approved by the state as part of a pilot program for industrial hemp growth and cultivation research following Gov. Tom Wolf's signing of the Industrial Hemp Research Act in 2016.

An interdisciplinary team originally led by Greg Roth, professor emeritus of agronomy in the Department of Plant Science, spearheaded hemp research and outreach efforts at Penn State. This original work focused on the basics of hemp production for seed. Now Collins is heading up the effort, and the work is expanding to look at fiber and the production of CBD oils.

Hemp plants at Penn State

Female, at left, and male industrial hemp plants at Penn State’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Manheim, Lancaster County.

IMAGE: Alyssa Collins

“While the crop has great potential, it also presents some risks, especially for the first-time hemp grower,” Collins said. “Variety selection, fertilization, weed control, harvesting, drying and marketing are some of the key factors that growers need to carefully plan for.”

To that end, committee members are carrying out several projects to develop guidelines and are working in concert with other hemp growers, processors and industry partners, most notably the Pennsylvania Hemp Industry Council.

“Our work with hemp for seed provided a good foundation for understanding the crop,” Roth said. “But growing hemp for fiber and CBD production have new challenges that we need to understand quickly and adapt production systems to our climate here in the Northeast.”

Now in its second phase, the hemp variety trials have been relocated to the research and extension center in Manheim and are under the direction of Collins and Jeffrey Graybill, a Penn State Extension agronomy educator.

They are building on Roth’s earlier work focused on production, while Jude Liu, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering, has joined the effort and is testing machine/equipment manufacturing processing techniques for fiber in his lab at University Park. Demonstration crop trials also have been planted at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center at Rock Springs, Centre County, this year.

Hemp education and outreach has been ongoing, beginning with a hemp field day in July 2017, when a group of crop scientists, extension educators, industry professionals and state officials met with Roth at Rock Springs to tour the hemp research plots. A similar field day is being planned for later this summer at the Manheim site, Collins noted.

Hemp also has been a hot topic at Penn State’s annual Ag Progress Days event and at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. In addition, Penn State Extension educators have been busy developing articles and fact sheets about the crop.

“As extension specialists, it’s our job to source good information from research and translate it for the folks who need it,” said Collins, who added that one of the challenges they face is that there is little published research on best management practices for producing hemp.

“We are doing experiments now to answer these questions for Pennsylvania growers, but until we have the results, we’re just trying to gather the best information we can find about industry standards from people already making this crop work around the country and world,” she said.

In the meantime, Collins and Liu pointed out that funding will be important for continued research and expressed their appreciation for a recent award from the college’s Strategic Networks and Initiatives Program.

“Stronger seed or initiative grant support will speed up our research activities,” said Collins, who added that the committee has been investigating state and national grants and enlisting industry support. “We are off to a good start, but with added investment, the sky is the limit.”

More information about industrial hemp can be found at the Penn State Extension website at https://extension.psu.edu/industrial-hemp-production.

  • Greg Roth at hemp fields Penn State

    Greg Roth, professor emeritus of agronomy, shares production advice with attendees of the 2018 Hemp Field Day at Penn State’s Southeast Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Manheim, Lancaster County.

    IMAGE: Alyssa Collins

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 27, 2019